There is something overwhelmingly self-indulgent when a journalist interviews other journalists about journalism. No exception to this rule occurred on Tuesday when the ABC’s 7.30 presenter Leigh Sales spoke to Phillip Coorey (The Australian Financial Review) and Sabra Lane (ABC) concerning, among other matters, the media’s role in the demise of Tony Abbott’s prime ministership.
In his resignation speech earlier that day, Abbott had said: “We have more polls and more commentary than ever before; mostly sour, bitter, character assassination.”
He said “a febrile media culture has developed that rewards treachery” and told the media to “refuse to print self-serving claims that the person making them won’t put his or her name to”.
Lane essentially dismissed Abbott’s comment, saying John Howard had said “he didn’t think that the media could be blamed for what happened”. This is Howard’s long-term position, but it is important to point out that his prime ministership did not take in much of the social media revolution. Coorey, a fellow member of the Canberra press gallery, said much the same thing as Lane, declaring “it wasn’t the media’s fault”.
Sure, Malcolm Turnbull became Prime Minister on Tuesday on account of the fact Abbott lost the support of a majority of members and senators in the Liberal partyroom, albeit by a small margin. This, however, does not mean the former prime minister’s critique is without merit.
That’s why the discussion that took place on the ABC’s The Drum on Tuesday, which aired before 7.30, was so fresh. Presenter Julia Baird asked Lenore Taylor (The Guardian Australia’s political reporter) about whether Abbott was correct in claiming that “the media precipitated his downfall by acting with his opponents”.
Taylor conceded there was something to be said for Abbott’s analysis. She said “it’s impossible to tell readers or viewers what’s going on when leadership destabilisation is happening without using unsourced material to some extent”. But Taylor recognised that journalistic standards had weakened in this regard over time. Now she acknowledged that “any unsourced quote is fair game and the media really has to think carefully about how we can be used in that process”.
Taylor sought to balance her position by stating that the Prime Minister’s office under Abbott advised the media about government approaches to policy before they had been considered by cabinet. This appears to be the case. It’s just that it’s easier for a reader/viewer/listener to work out who is the source of a leak on a policy matter. It’s difficult, however, to determine the standing of the leak about personnel — whether of a leadership or cabinet reshuffle genre. Moreover, Abbott himself has no record of engaging in personal leaks against his colleagues.
Anonymous sources have scant credibility. Some, obviously, will be proven correct. Many, however, will be discredited in time because they were based on a falsehood or on account of the fact that circumstances changed.
Abbott was never welcomed by the Left intelligentsia, which is so influential within the Australian media and universities. So it comes as no surprise that his political demise has been treated with rapture in the leftist online newsletter Crikey. On Tuesday, Guy Rundle (a former editor of the Marxist Arena magazine) began his article with the term “ha, ha, ha, ha” repeated twice. He went on to describe Abbott as “a European Catholic reactionary …(who) had a deep desire to fail, to fail nobly in the service of an old order”. Abbott had no desire to fail — this is yet more anti-Catholic sectarianism.
As with all recent former leaders, it is too early to assess Abbott’s political legacy. But it is clear that, along with Labor’s Gough Whitlam, Abbott was the most successful opposition leader in modern Australian history.
When Abbott succeeded Turnbull as opposition leader in December 2009, some commentators predicted the end of the Liberal Party as we knew it. Writing in Crikey (December 2, 2009), Labor operative Bruce Hawker declared that “the Liberal Party is now so badly divided that a distinct possibility exists that a group — possibly led by Malcolm Turnbull — will leave and establish their own party”. Another false prophecy.
Hawker went on to compare Abbott most unfavourably with prime minister Kevin Rudd, due to Rudd’s “ability to seize the centre”. By June 2010, Rudd had been dumped by his colleagues.
In August 2010, Abbott very nearly defeated Julia Gillard, who was forced to lead a minority government for the remainder of her term as prime minister until she was dumped for Rudd. Before he became prime minister in September 2013, some commentators said Abbott would be a “do-nothing” prime minister. It was predicted (by Coorey, among others) that he would never stop the boats and (by Radio National’s Fran Kelly, among others) that he would never junk the carbon tax. Abbott did both, despite the enduring problems of having much legislation blocked in the Senate.
As prime minister, Abbott enjoyed more policy achievements than failures. Yet he was never able to project in public the charm, empathy and civility he exhibited in private. This explains why Abbott was so well regarded overseas — by the likes of Barack Obama. In their one-to-one meetings, the US President saw the private Abbott.
Needless to say, the Abbott haters in our midst have rallied to his demise. In an extraordinarily unprofessional editorial in New Matilda, Chris Graham wrote that Abbott’s last statement as prime minister reminded him “of American serial killer Ted Bundy’s final media appearance”. Graham criticised Abbott’s policy of mandatory detention (ignoring that this was also the policy of Labor prime ministers Paul Keating, Rudd and Gillard) along with Australia’s war on Islamic State — ignoring that this is also the policy of the Obama administration.
Meanwhile, on ABC Radio National’s Late Night Live on Monday, Norman Abjorensen alleged that Abbott “shares with Islamic State” a “constant war against modernity”.
Someone who engendered such irrational rage in the likes of Rundle, Graham and Abjorensen obviously had an impact.